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Another Campaign Donor Gets A Top Ambassadorship, But That's Par For The Course

New York Jets owner Woody Johnson speaks during a press conference in April at the team's practice facility in New Jersey.
Adam Hunger
New York Jets owner Woody Johnson speaks during a press conference in April at the team's practice facility in New Jersey.

President-elect Donald Trump told a group gathered at an inauguration luncheon Thursday that he is naming New York Jets owner Woody Johnson to be ambassador to the Court of St. James's, the ambassador to the U.K., a transition official confirmed.

Trump's remarks came after the press was ushered out of the luncheon.

Johnson was the Trump campaign's finance chairman. Appointing an NFL team owner is not without precedent. President Obama named Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a campaign booster, as ambassador to Ireland in 2009.

The Court of St. James's is a far more high-profile position than Ireland, but the post has been a prominent landing spot for top campaign donors in the past, including for Obama.

In fact, in the U.S.'s more than 200-year history, just one person has been a career diplomat. For trivia lovers, that was Raymond Seitz, appointed by George H.W. Bush in 1991.

Obama appointed Louis Susman, a former managing director of Citigroup and Obama campaign donor, to the post in 2009. And the current ambassador to the U.K. is Matthew Barzun, another Obama campaign donor and volunteer.

Seitz was the deputy chief of mission at the embassy for years. It's the No. 2 post. Britain generally does it differently, sending its top lifelong diplomats to the U.S. and other important countries.

But even though many U.S. campaign donors are picked for plum ambassadorships, the U.S. has top career diplomats, those DCMs, in those key places.

This reporter in 2013 looked into the history of the different kinds of ambassadors both sides assign, when Vanity Fair magazine editor Anna Wintour was being discussed as a potential ambassador to the U.K.:

" 'It often is sort of a joke in London diplomatic circles,' said Erik Goldstein, a professor at Boston University who specializes in British foreign policy and who lived in England when Seitz was ambassador.

"Michael Hopkins, senior lecturer on American Foreign Policy at the University of Liverpool and editor of 'The Washington Embassy: British Ambassadors to Washington, 1939-1977,' added wryly, 'Most Foreign Office officials, if they were to say so, would regard it as 'disappointing' or 'perhaps not the best choice of envoy.' "

The Foreign Office in the U.K. is responsible for U.K. foreign affairs.

These appointments can sometimes be perceived problematically. Seitz was succeeded by a Joint Chiefs chairman, but the ambassador before him, Henry Catto, hung the flag of the state of Texas at the embassy and put a 4-foot-tall wooden steer on its lawn.

Former British Ambassador to the U.S. Peter Westmacott defended the U.S. system — but did so diplomatically.

"It's a very different system. It's easy to say that the U.S. system appoints ambassadors using criteria not related to merit or suitability," Westmacott told this reporter in 2013 when he was still ambassador to the U.S. But, he added, "Often, it works very well."

He said that's the case because of the deep ties between the countries and the efficiency of the embassy staff ("which is why it's important to have an excellent deputy," he said). But it's also often helpful for the ambassador to have the president's ear.

"There's real value in someone having political clout," Westmacott said then. "That's not always the case with professional diplomats."

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Corrected: January 19, 2017 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story misspelled some references to Peter Westmacott's last name as Westamacott.
Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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